NASCAR Tweaks on the Table: Shorter Races Could Be Next

Hank EptonCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2011

FONTANA, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Office Depot Chevrolet, crosses the finish line to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pepsi Max 400 on October 10, 2010 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

NASCAR may not be through tweaking the sport.

After a decade of adding the Chase, double file restarts, the green-white-checker finishes, then three of them, a new car and a new points system, the sanctioning body may still have a couple of cards left to play.

The next tweak that seems to be making the rounds in the collective consciousness of the sport is shortening up the events.

“I think a lot of the races are too long. I think probably three hours would be ideal,” proclaimed FOX Sports Chairman David Hill last week.

''There is more diversion, more opportunities for stuff than any other time in man's history.''

Maybe there’s some truth to that.

Over the course of the NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte and in the run up to the kickoff to the season at Daytona, there’s been a lot of talk about social media.

It’s been nothing specific, just in the wind, but the prevailing wisdom is that NASCAR needs to do a better job of utilizing those platforms to expose the sport to new and younger demographics.

The theory seems to go that the races are just too long for anyone to sit in front of the television for 500 or even 600 miles of racing.

Ironically, for a sport that demands speed to be successful, maybe the world is moving too fast to see how fast the competitors drive.

Maybe speeds approaching 200 mph at some tracks aren’t fast enough to cover the 500-mile distance in a time frame that fits into the modern American’s attention span.

Racing by its very nature is a difficult sport to cover on television. Stick and ball sports tend to concentrate the action around the ball or in tiny little nuggets that a viewer can watch and then catch a breath.

Touchdowns, goals and runs tend to be scored throughout the event, each one an important part of the storyline of the game.

With a race, maybe there’s a fight for the lead, but then again maybe the best racing is for seventh place, or 20th, or even further back in the field.

There’s even less of a guarantee that any given pass or moment in the race changed its complexion until the race is over and fans can reverse engineer it.

There’s always great racing. If you’re in the stands, you can find it by turning your head. Unfortunately, no matter how big your television is, it’s hard to see the big picture of a race on it.

Racing at times can have laps where drivers simply hold their positions, and then it turns into a barroom brawl the next. There’s often no indication that those moments will come. One driver gets aggressive, and suddenly the race takes on a life of its own.

But until that happens, and if the network misses the great racing back in the field, it can be a waiting game.

We’re an instant gratification bunch in America. Maybe some folks are picking up the remote and clicking their television to where there’s more action they can see. That might explain the decline in ratings.

Like David Hill said, there’s just too much on the landscape.

Auto Club speedway in California felt the heat last year. The 500-mile Chase race in Fontana was reduced to 400 miles in 2010, and after losing their fall date for 2011, the track decided to do the same with its spring event.

“We’re confident the newly re-mileaged Auto Club 400 will continue the momentum we have been experiencing and that March’s race will be the most exciting ever,” said track president Gillian Zucker after the change.

It was the right move. The fall race shortened to 400 miles at Fontana produced one of the better races at the speedway, where the specter of a fuel-mileage race tend to create long segments of wait-and-see single-file racing.

The shorter distance coupled with the multiple-groove race track created lots of those moments where television could capture the magic of seeing cars three and sometimes four wide through the corners.

There are some other tracks like California that might benefit from tightening up the race distance. California’s sister Michigan hosted two 400-mile events last year, and Pocono might benefit from the same move.

Field separation on those big, flat tracks and a looming possibility of a fuel-mileage finish creates long stretches of hang-around racing.

Years ago, 500 miles was the gold standard. Equipment wasn’t as reliable, and some of the drivers weren’t in the condition they are now. For the most part, both man and machine have become nearly bulletproof.

Even the 600-mile race at Charlotte has lost some of the flair for the dramatic, as more and more teams have figured out how to get reliability out of their machines. The extra hundred miles used to be a tough hill to climb for the engines, but now they just keep on spinning.

NASCAR at one time was a sport for the enthusiast. Most of its fans had a fascination with the cars and its drivers. Many of its fans weren’t afraid of a wrench and greasy hands and marveled at what it took to get a car to do what they could do.

At times, it could be mystifying.

Times have changed.

In the era of the personality-driven sports world, the drivers are the focus. Fewer people are amazed by the endurance it requires to run 500 miles than the charm it takes for some of them to date a supermodel.

There are some of us who are the traditionalists, but we have to concede that we’re in the era where our competitors are celebrities.

Their celebrity status might be what brings some who are fascinated by what they do in their spare time to sample what they do for a living: driving a race car.

The drivers are as much wheelmen as they are Internet magnets and magazine cover fodder.

As evidenced by the shorter race at California last year, shaving a little distance off the race goes a long way towards ramping up the action factor.

In the 21st century, maybe that’s what NASCAR needs to sell.

Action heroes always seem to draw a crowd.



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